Ellen Stewart, 91, universally known as La Mama and acclaimed as one of the formidable figures who shaped the Off-Off-Broadway theater movement, died peacefully in her sleep on Wednesday night. The founder and guiding spirit of Café La MaMa, later known as La MaMa E.T.C. (standing for “Experimental Theatre Club”), she created a haven for innovative playwrights, directors, designers, and performers that has had permanent artistic effects worldwide. A homey, straightforward, no-nonsense woman, she was famous for the signature gesture by which, in the early years, she opened every La MaMa performance: ringing a cowbell and declaring, “Good evening, ladies and gentlemen, and welcome to La MaMa, dedicated to the playwright and to all aspects of the theater.”
And her theater was indeed so dedicated. A passionate believer in internationalism and cultural freedom, Ellen Stewart sent troupes from LaMaMa across the globe, and traveled it herself in search of kindred spirits she could bring back to show their work at home. The original La MaMa Troupe, formed by director Tom O’Horgan, startled Europe with plays by new writers like Paul Foster, Rochelle Owens, and Sam Shepard; an important early importation, found at a theater festival in Bucharest, was the young director Andrei Serban, whose trilogy of Greek tragedy stagings became the keystone work of another La MaMa troupe. The countless artists who have worked since those days at La MaMa’s three spaces on East 4th Street (one of them now renamed the Ellen Stewart Theatre) have built from the ring of that first cowbell a peal of chimes that will never stop resonating to her memory worldwide.